Sunday, July 08, 2018

The Queen is Dead. Long Live the Queens.

I started thinking about contenders for the title of my personal Queen of Soul in late June, after I attended the American Roots Music Festival at the Caramoor Center for Music & the Arts in Katonah, NY. The day part of the festival wrapped up with an artist I’d never heard of, the Alexis P. Suter Band. I didn’t know what to expect.

Alexis Suter hits the stage at Caramoor. 

Alexis Suter set me straight very quickly. She hit the stage in her trademarked lime-green top hat and got to work. Her big voice and commanding presence grabbed me as she performed a program of original and classic blues songs, and some gospel numbers. I learned she came from a musical family—her mother was the first African-American to study voice at Julliard. Suter’s an award-winning staple on the blues and roots festival circuits, and I can see why she was a headliner at Caramoor. At one point in the show the Brooklyn native invited the ever-so-sedate Westchester County audience to come in closer to the stage, so I hauled my folding chair right up there to absorb more of Suter’s high energy. I sensed I was in the presence of a real Queen of Soul.

Alexis Suter, giving it her all.
But this story isn’t just about 2018. It’s about 2008, too, as Suter sent my memory spinning back a decade.

That’s when I first heard Sharon Jones on WFUV-FM. I didn’t know Jones was the singer, and I didn’t know the name of the song. The R&B sound and lyrics, however, with the unforgettable line “is this romance or circumstance?” burned into my mind and I had to track down every detail.

That required a lot of online searching, since the line isn’t the title, but I finally discovered the song was “Stranded in Your Love,” by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. From that moment I became a confirmed fan of Jones and her group. She was my Queen of Brooklyn Soul. The lyrics read in part:

Now I'm gonna let you in baby
But you don't take me wrong
Make me change my mind
I send you right back out this door, yeah
Well, use my phone to call your brother
And if you can't get a ride
I guess I'll make you a bed over here
And you can sleep on the floor, yeah

I don't mean to take advantage
But my brother is fast asleep
When I don't sleep on a bed
I get mighty sore
Oh my...

Well I guess there ain’t any reason
To be uncomfortable
And if it's just for one night
We might as well do it like we've done before

Is this romance or circumstance
Now I'm stranded... In your love

My enthusiasm reached its apogee when I took the F train to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to hear her free concert on August 7, 2010, the finale of the Celebrate Brooklyn series. I arrived two hours early and found myself at the tail end of a line of thousands of people with the same idea. Not only did I not get seating in the theater, but I had to hike farther and farther back to find a space to even stand. I found myself on a road maybe 100 yards from the stage, sitting on the curb watching the Brooklyn humanity walk, bike and jog past me.

The world came to Brooklyn to hear Sharon Jones.

What was the attendance that night—20,000, or 40,000, or 50,000? Whatever the headcount, Jones and the Dap-Kings put on an epochal show that became a New York legend. I pushed my camera to its limits to photograph the concert; the blurred results at least show that, yes, I was there on that August night. For once in my life, I was at the right place at the right time.

Sharon Jones at left in blue dress, Binky Griptite playing guitar, in center.

I looked forward to more concerts by Jones, whose music career didn’t start jelling until 1996, when she was 40 years old. We were almost exact contemporaries and had both lived in Brooklyn in the 1980s; maybe we rode the subway together. I was sure I’d hear more of her. Indeed, I had tickets to see her at the Clearwater Festival on the banks of the Hudson River in June 2013. She would have torn the place apart.

Our paths never again crossed. She cancelled the Clearwater gig as a result of a diagnosis of bile duct cancer. Her struggle and seeming recovery from cancer, with a 2014 world tour, framed a 2015 documentary directed by Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, Miss Sharon Jones! The documentary ended on a hopeful note, but Jones suffered a heart attack on Election Night in November 2016 and passed away on November 18.

The Queen was dead.

Jones’ passing hit me hard. Entertainers’ death are a sad reality; we adore their work and feel we know them from a stream of received images (I can still remember exactly where I was and who I was with when I learned that Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed by his father on April 1, 1984.) Maybe we see our own end in their passing. The loss of young performers, like Amy Winehouse, hurts because we always wonder what might have grown from their astounding potential.

With Sharon Jones, I grieved because I really connected with her style of music, so redolent of the sounds I heard growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. That we were within a year of each other in age reminded me of time’s wing├ęd chariot hurrying near.

I'd think about Jones at those times when I found performers who struck a vibrating chord in me. That could come from any genre: Latin, Texas red-dirt singers along the lines of Phil Pritchett, indie groups like Chastity Belt, with its haunting song "Black Sail." You've already been introduced to the latest, Alexis Suter. Another, Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics, hit me like that first Sharon Jones song: I just stumbled across her. On a whim I listened to the soundtrack of the cable show “Suits,” which I’ve even never watched, and I sure didn’t know that the future Duchess of Sussex, then known as Meghan Markle, appeared on the show. The sheer randomness of listening to music from an unknown source often gets exciting new sounds in front of me. 

The Suits soundtrack stopped me in my tracks with a song called “It’s About Time.” Clicking around took me to an album of the same title. “It’s About Time” uncannily captured the passionate, horn-driven sound of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even the cover of a pensive Ruby Velle in a shiny yellow raincoat, standing with a suitcase next to a train, made me wonder if I had discovered a hidden gem from 45 years ago, with Velle on that midnight train to somewhere.

A pensive Ruby Velle, waiting for the midnight train.

But no, the album debuted in 2012 with a fresh take on Southern soul. I liked what I heard and now follow Velle on Facebook and Instagram. Velle, an Indian-Canadian born in Toronto and now based in Atlanta, has been out there building a fan base for over a decade. I’m now part of it. “It’s About Time” continues to resonate for me as both a romantic and social statement:

Where have we been?
What have we done?
Will the story of our future
Be a new tune? Or the same old song?
Because who we are
Only history knows
But where we are going
Oh it hasn't fully, fully been told
And it’s about time
That we got together

Thanks to Caramoor and Suits, I’ve added Suter and Velle to my regular music rotation. They both say something to me with their urgency, honesty and messages. I’m going to look into Suter’s newest project, Alexis P. Suter and the Ministers of Sound (AMOS). Hearing Suter and Velle, I remember what attracted me to Sharon Jones, and that’s the highest musical accolade I can imagine.

The Queen is dead. Long live the Queens.

Coda: Around the time of Caramoor I was driving on a Saturday night and I heard a WFUV program new to me, “The Boogie Down,” a “Saturday night dance party” featuring classic soul and funk hosted by the delightfully named Binky Griptite. The name didn’t mean anything to me. That is, it didn’t until I watched Miss Sharon Jones!, where I realized that Griptite was a guitarist and longtime member of the Dap-Kings (take another look at the photo from the 2010 concert). I’m now a devotee of the show. Thanks to Griptite’s inspired platter-spinning, I get a little bit of the spirit of Sharon Jones every Saturday night.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

On the Job But Not on the Railroad

Monday is the big transition day for me. After riding Metro-North to New York for over 22 years, I’m becoming a telecommuter, at least for the next two months. This is happening due to an office relocation from Sixth Avenue a few blocks to 42nd Street. The move is complex and my floor is closing on June 15 to prepare space for the new tenants; who will get my view of the News Corp. building across West 47th Street? I’ll never know. Rather than use the “free seating” option on other still-open floors, I opted to cancel my $369/month ticket and work at home.

While I’ve had the option of working remotely for years, I always liked going into New York for 3-4 days a week and working at home 1-2 days. Despite the time and expense, I liked the sense of belonging, of resources, of a place to WORK that I left at day's end. And I always enjoyed being in the city—walking through Times Square with my camera, the parades, the demonstrations, the museums, the splashy marketing promos, Broadway music in Bryant Park in the summers, the cops and crowds around Trump Tower, the sirens, the sense of something always about to happen, the sense of history happening. And, as Irwin Shaw titled his 1939 short story, I noticed the girls in their summer dresses.

The monthly ticket’s absence is disorienting. I had temporarily cancelled it before, while between jobs and after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, but I always felt relieved when I hit the rails again. The ticket gave me freedom, like a pass to Disneyland. I’ve even used it like a subway pass, getting from Katonah to Pleasantville or White Plains, or running into the city on a whim to buy halvah on the Lower East Side or go to an event. When I lived in Westport, Connecticut, I used it to ride from Grand Central to Katonah, on the Harlem rather than the New Haven line, because they are in the same ticket zones.

I estimate I spent $66,000 on tickets and traveled at least 200,000 miles, Over the 22 years, I forgot jackets, gym bags and tuna-salad lunches in Tupperware on the train. I found and returned other people’s wallets and cell phones, although I never lost my own. I’ve stood on platforms in weather so cold I thought I would get frostbite; that only happened this winter when I spent 15 minutes shoveling the snow and ice off my car so I could drive to the station. I put money into a boot carried by a fireman as a donation after 9/11. I’ve heard voices raised but have never seen a fight on a train, or an arrest. Chatty or dotty people will start conversations with me, even when I’ve got my nose in a book. Usually I’ll listen, at least for a while. One snowy Saturday night something seemed off on the train—then I realized the moving train’s doors were open and snow was blowing in.

I’ve slept through my station only once, when I sailed past Greens Farms in Connecticut and barely got out in time at Fairfield. I could have easily gone all the way to New Haven.

I’ve pondered what’s worse: riding in a car without heat in the winter, or without air conditioning in the summer. No AC is definitely far more uncomfortable. I felt like I was suffocating.

Then there was the train ride I didn’t get to take. That was in August 2003, when I was in the city when the blackout struck. I went to Grand Central with a vain hope of getting a train to Stamford, but that wasn’t happening. I wound up walking five miles, over the Brooklyn Bridge to the Carroll Gardens neighborhood and spending the night with friends. The next day I got to Grand Central and hung out until I stormed on to the first train back to Stamford.

So now—no monthly ticket. I’ll need to find things to get me out of the home office so I don't turn into a hermit; you may see me more often at the Katonah Village Library for lunchtime bridge lessons and chair yoga.

I’ve brought files home from work, tossed unneeded papers, moved books to the basement and will try not to raid the fridge too often. I’ll save $369 a month, although I may get a 10-pass ticket and I’ll check out the new office when it opens at the end of July. I’m going to visit my company’s Stamford office. I may do morning workouts at the New York Sports Club in Baldwin Place, where I now go on the weekends. Or I’ll switch to a closer gym.

And what have I gained: Time! I’ll have endless vistas of time. I spent close to four hours commuting daily, and lately I’ve been passing out once the train reaches Chappaqua or North White Plains; I just can’t keep my eyes open. I can now go back to bed after feeding the cats at 6 a.m., and start working at 7 a.m. if the spirit moves me or keep working until 7 p.m. I can blast bossa nova and Texas swing without putting on ear buds as a courtesy to my officemates. I’ll have to swat the cats away when they want to walk on my keyboard and “accidently” step on the on-off switch on my laptop.

And now I have no excuses for not writing the Great American novel at 6 a.m. I’ve made outlines, thought about material, and even tried writing short stories involving a commuter. If anything results, I’ll make sure the Katonah Village Library gets a signed first edition.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Pepe's on the River, Written in "Texas Blood"

I recently read the book "Texas Blood" by Del Rio native Roger Hodge. While Hodge is an excellent and even exhaustive researcher, the book works better as a collection of essays than a coherent whole. I found myself skipping chunks of it (a chapter on Cormac McCarthy) and moving on to parts that held my attention and brought back a lot of good memories.

Hodge devotes considerable time to the Border Patrol and technology issues. As I'm a native of Mission, Texas, three miles from the Rio Grande, one passage especially caught my attention, about the well known landmark Pepe's on the River Restaurant, known to me in the 1960s as Pepe's Boat Ramp. This resonated with me because I grew up knowing the man behind the local landmark: Jose "Pepe" de la Fuente and his familyhis wife Irene and my mother Shirley worked together for decades as secretaries at the Mission insurance agency of Conway, Dooley & Martin and our families were very close. We spent many holidays, like the Fourth of July, out at the boat ramp enjoying BBQ and Dr Pepper. Pepe is still going strong in his 90s with a large and loving family that I follow on Facebook. The family no longer owns the place, but the name and the memories remain.

Here's what Hodge wrote:
From the relatively lofty viewpoint of a McAllen levee, we descended to a riverside boat launch at a spot called Chimney Park. A small fleet of riverboats patrols the navigable portions of the Rio Grande; the boats are owned by the Office of Air and Marine but manned by Border Patrol agents. The shift was ending, and the agents prepared to haul the boats out of the water. I was supposed to go out on patrol in one of these so-called safe boats, but the Zapata murder had made the sector officials nervous, so I was obliged to content myself with a sky box, a somewhat more cumbersome mobile surveillance unit than the scope truck, and learned about its uses, both as a surveillance instrument and as a deterrent. Unlike the scope truck, which possesses its own means of locomotion, the sky box is basically a surveillance tower mounted on a trailer; a hydraulic lift raises and lowers an enclosed platform on which are mounted the standard combination of conventional and thermal cameras.
Downriver, at a popular restaurant called Pepe's, traffic had been pretty hot, so they deployed a sky box and the traffic moved elsewhere. Last summer's big floods threatened to wash the sky box away, so they pulled it out. Inevitably, the traffic resumed, and so the sky box returned to Pepe's; it wouldn't do to have the restaurant's patrons watching the immigrants run by as they sat eating their carne asada and listening to the nighttime song of the Rio Grande chirping frog.
After I found the passage, something buzzed in my memory about another book that mentioned Pepe's. After rooting around in the basement, I found what I wanted: "Patrolling Chaos: The U.S. Border Patrol in Deep South Texas," a 2004 book by Robert Lee Maril, a professor  of sociology at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

Thanks to its extensive index, "Patrolling Chaos" told me exactly where to find details about what is called in the book "Pepe's Riverside Fiesta Club . . . a popular bar and dance hangout south of Mission." Due to its location, a lot of Border Patrol action swirled around the place. Maril included details that will sound dead-on accurate to anybody from the area, as when he wrote,
His ears still ringing after two-stepping the night away to oldies like Hank Williams's "Your Cheating Heart," an old man from Iowa, who was just another snowbird killing time at Pepe's Riverside Fiesta Club, was climbing into his car when he had seen the boat zoom up to the dock. Four men tossed the bales into the back of the dark blue van. The whole thing took less than thirty seconds. The old man went back inside Pepe's to make the call from the pay phone. Info from snowbirds—unlike that from many other sourceswas as reliable as their pacemakers.
I haven't lived in the area for 40 years, and I lasted visited Pepe's in the mid-1990s when my Mission High School class celebrated its 20th reunion. As an aging baby boomer living in the Northeast, I probably come closer to the profile of a creaky frozen snowbird than anything else.  Still, reading about Pepe's Boat Ramp, as I still think of it, in these tales of the Texas border makes me feel a timeless thrill of recognition and identity.

With books, you can go home again.

Friday, February 09, 2018

The Second World Wars: An Implacable America Seeking Absolute Victory

I finished reading the eye-opening The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hanson and came away with a lot to think about: the continuity of military issues from ancient times to today; the shifting alliances of World War II; how the Germans and Japanese misread the American capacity to make war; the British tenacity in keeping the war going for a year until the Germans invaded the USSR in 1941.

I found something compelling on every page. One passage in particular struck me in its sweep of U.S. military might and determination of attack enemies worldwide, with every weapon at hand. The passage, from pages 216-217, demands quoting in its entirety:
Why the American Army was small, in relative terms, is also illustrated by how diverse and spread over the globe the American military had become by the latter part of the war. For example, on the single day of the invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944), around the world other US forces were just as much on the attack at sea and in the air. As part of the ill-fated Operation Frantic shuttle-bombing operations between US airfields in Italy and refueling bases in the Soviet Ukraine, over 150 B-17s and their P-51 escorts attacked the oil fields at Galati, Romania. Another five hundred B-17s and escorts hit the often-targeted Romanian oil fields at Ploesti. Meanwhile, the 12th Air Force conducted continuous tactical air strikes on German positions in Italy. Allied ground troops also had just occupied Rome two days earlier and were garrisoning in the city in preparation for offensives against the Gothic Line in northern Italy.
In the Asia and Pacific theaters on this same landmark day of June 6, the US Pacific Fleet was making preparations to invade the Mariana Islands within a week, with a combined force almost as large as had landed at Normandy. Meanwhile, B-29 bombers prepared for their first raid against Japan from forward bases in China, while six B-25 Mitchell medium bombers and ten P-51 fighter escorts conducted operations against Tayang Chiang, China. B-25s were also attacking Japanese troops moving on Imphal, India. Meanwhile, the submarine Raton was tracking a Japanese convoy near Saigon. The submarine Harder sank a Japanese destroyer off Borneo, while the Pintado torpedoed and destroyed a cargo vessel off the Marianas. B-24 heavy bombers hit Ponape Island in Micronesia as tactical strikes were conducted against the Japanese on Bouganville, New Britain, and New Guinea.
In other words, even as the American Army and its supporting naval and air forces participated in the largest amphibious landing in history, the US military was on the offensive against the Germans in Italy, conducting long-range bombing from Italy and Britain, torpedoing convoys in the Pacific, assembling forces to storm the Marianas, and carrying out air strikes from bases in China all the way to New Guinea. On such a single typical day of combat, diverse fleets of B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s, B-29s, A-20s, P-38s, P-39s, P-40s, P-47s, and P-51s were all in the air from Normandy to the China Sea.
Could the United States ever again muster that social, economic and political will to "win through to absolute victory," as President Franklin Roosevelt said in seeking a declaration of war the day after Pearl Harbor? I don't want to find out.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

"The Second World Wars" -- Compelling on Every Page

I've always liked the online essays of classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson. His work combines deep historical knowledge and jargon-free expression to make big, discomforting points about current affairs. I had never read any of his books, however.

I hadn't until yesterday, when I started reading his latest, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and WonHanson grabbed me from the introduction and hasn't let go. I can pay it a high accolade: It kept me awake on the train commute home to the suburbs, when I'm usually dozing off. I'm only 30 pages in on a 500-page book, but I know what I'll have my nose in for the next week whenever possible.

Every page has striking passages that draw from Hanson's knowledge of classical culture and world history. I want to quote something from every paragraph, he's that compelling with his original take on World War II. Rather than a chronological approach, Hanson discusses the war in seven timeless, elemental themes: ideas, air, water, earth, fire, people, ends. His long, well-balanced sentences are a challenge to summarize or excerpt. One typical example:
Yet the pathetic socialist pamphleteer and failed novelist Benito Mussolini, and the thuggish seminary dropout, bank robber, and would-be essayist Joseph Stalin--traditional failures all--proved nonetheless in nihilistic times to be astute political operatives far more gifted than most of their gentleman counterparts in the European democracies of the 1930s.
Lessons applicable to current civil challenges constantly struck me. In his total grasp of the subject material, Hanson reminds me of both Charles Dickens and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The originality and argument of his thesis compares well to Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, from 2010. While I've only started Hanson's book, I suspect one difference is that Hanson will come to an elegant and succinct conclusion, in contrast to Snyder, who struggled to close with a Big Message, as if his book needed something beyond its statement of horrors. That being said, Snyder's use of statistics was so eye-opening that I wrote about his book soon after it appeared, at the Times of Israel.

Bottom line: Color me impressed and informed by Hanson. I'll say more once I finish the book.

The Queen is Dead. Long Live the Queens.

I started thinking about contenders for the title of my personal Queen of Soul in late June, after I attended the American Roots Music Fes...